Q & A with Producer Ivan Reitman

Stars of Up In the Air George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

Stars of Up In the Air George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to “Up In the Air” producer Ivan Reitman, whose son Jason Reitman directed and co-wrote the film and also is one of its producers. The Montecito Picture Company production released through Paramount Pictures is a leading contender for nominations in key Oscar races like best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay.

“Up In the Air” stars Oscar winner George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert whose cherished life on the road is threatened just as he’s on the cusp of reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles and after he’s met the frequent-traveler woman of his dreams. Also starring are Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Danny McBride.

Directed by Jason Reitman, “Up in the Air’s” screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner is based on the novel by Walter Kirn. It was produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford and executive produced by Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck,Ted Griffin and Michael Beugg.

Ivan Reitman has been the creative force as producer/director behind numerous films that have attracted audiences around the world – from raucous comedies like “Animal House”, “Stripes”, and “Ghostbusters” to more sophisticated films like “Dave”, “Six Days/Seven Nights” and “Twins”.

Reitman’s family emigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia when he was four years old. He studied music at McMaster University, but soon turned his talents to film and theater. Shortly after graduation, Reitman moved into film production – first with the extremely low budget horror comedy “Cannibal Girls”, starring Canada’s Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin, followed by the live television show “Greed” with Dan Aykroyd as its announcer. Reitman then headed to New York and produced the Broadway hit “The Magic Show” starring Doug Henning, a friend from his McMaster days.

He continued producing for the stage with the off-Broadway hit “The National Lampoon Show” where he brought together for the first time then unknowns John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty. Reitman returned to Broadway to produce and direct the musical “Merlin”, earning him Tony nominations for directing and producing. While in New York, Reitman reapplied his talents to filmmaking when he joined forces with National Lampoon and produced (with Matty Simmons) the groundbreaking 1978 comedy hit “Animal House”.

Following the film’s success, Reitman returned home to Canada to direct the 1979 comedy “Meatballs”, starring Bill Murray, which is still considered one the most successful films ever made in that country. Reitman’s string of hits continued with “Stripes” (1981), starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, and the “Ghostbusters” series (1984 and 1989), which teamed Bill Murray with Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis; “Dave” (1993), starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver; “Legal Eagles” (1986), starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger; Six Days Seven Nights” (1998), starring Harrison Ford and Anne Heche; “Evolution” (2001), starring David Duchovny and Julianne Moore; and a series of films that revealed an untapped comic persona for action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger — “Twins” (1988) and “Junior” (1994), both co-starring Danny DeVito, and “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), co-starring Penelope Ann Miller.

Reitman’s list of producing credits is equally extensive. He produced the family features “Beethoven” (1994) and “Beethoven’s 2nd” (1993) and executive produced the HBO movie “The Late Shift” (1996), which received seven Emmy nominations. Among his other producing endeavors are “Heavy Metal” (1981), “Howard Stern’s Private Parts” (1997), the animation/live action film “Space Jam” (1996), which teamed Michael Jordan with the Looney Toons characters; and the teen comedy hits “Road Trip” (2000), “EuroTrip” (2004) and ”Old School” (2003), starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson.

In 1984, Reitman was honored as Director of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners and the next year received a Special Achievement Award at the Canadian Genie Awards. In 1979, and again in 1989, for the films “Animal House” and “Twins”, Reitman was honored with the People’s Choice Award. At the end of 2000, Reitman’s films “Animal House” and “Ghostbusters” were honored as two of the past century’s funniest movies by the American Film Institute. He currently heads The Montecito Picture Company, a film and television production company, with partner Tom Pollock, in association with Paramount.

Reitman also directed “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (2006) and is executive producer of the smash Canadian comedy “The Big Dirty” starring the comedy troupe Trailer Park Boys. He was executive producer on DreamWorks’ thriller “Disturbia”, (2007). Reitman’s most recent producing credits include “Hotel for Dogs” (2009), “The Uninvited” (2009), “I Love You, Man” (2009), “Post Grad” (2009) and Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” (2009).

Having enjoyed “Up In the Air” and many of Reitman’s films over the years, I was happy to be able to focus with him recently on the making of the movie, which recently won the Golden Globe for best screenplay.

Q: There often are issues during production between producers and directors. How was it working with your son as the film’s director and a producer, as well?
A: I’m happy to say this was a really joyful experience. You would expect me to say that, but I had the great fortune of working with a brilliant writer and brilliant director — one Jason Reitman. I mean, he wrote an extraordinary screenplay. He wrote it and basically delivered all the actors. He handled the work with extraordinary meticulous subtlety.

And because he was in my editing room for something like 25 of his 30-odd years he knows how important that editorial process is. I always had a reputation for being very ruthless in an editing room. If it doesn’t serve the story, it has to go. It doesn’t matter how in love I was with the shot. The storytelling is what counts. He seems to have certainly picked up that part of it and was very strict with himself.

My job on this movie was really to protect him like any good producer. He was really very easy to work with. He had a very, very specific and determined point of view that he earned. He had made two other really terrific movies before this and he had final cut on this movie. I certainly had a point of view and had conversations with him about various things, but it was a very happy experience.
Q: The ending of the film is somewhat controversial. Some people have complained that it should have had a happy Hollywood ending that was less ambiguous. Were the two of you in synch on the ending?
A: It was never a happy ending and it was never an unhappy ending. It was always going to be something of an enigmatic and ambiguous ending. He had actually written a couple of versions of an ambiguous ending. The conversations that we had had to do with the specificity of what the visualization of that was going to be. His desire was always to leave the audience thinking. What I love about “Up In the Air” is that it makes you laugh a lot. It really affects you emotionally as well. Some people definitely cry in this movie. I mean, the movie’s serious.

But most of all, it sort of makes you think and by the end of it it makes you think about yourself. (In our conversations) it was just about how to achieve that effect specifically. You know, what the order of the shots (would be). It was more of an editorial issue than ever a kind of scene issue. The studio knew about it all along. There was never any negative conversation with the studio about changing it. It actually never came up. I think we knew what we were getting into with it from the beginning and we felt this was the appropriate way to finish the movie.
Q: How did the film come about? Did you ever consider directing it?
A: He called me five or six years ago. He’d been making a series of shorts. He had yet to direct his first feature. He had read this book by Walter Kirn and liked it and had spoken to him. (Jason) said, “You should look at this. Maybe it’s something you could direct or at least pick up the rights because it’s something that I think I know what to do with.” I’d been talking to him about writing his first feature. He’d been winning every short prize there was for his first set of shorts. I think he had put off doing a feature for a while, perhaps because he was concerned about comparisons with me or accusations about nepotism and all that stuff. He really wanted to go at it in his own way where it was very clear that it was his own creativity that was going to make him or break him.

So we bought the book just really to hold it. Sheldon Turner was involved with that very first draft when we bought it. I could never get a screenplay that I was happy with. We kept developing it, first under our DreamWorks deal and then when DreamWorks became part of Paramount we still held on to it. Meanwhile, Jason went off and did “Thank You for Smoking”, where he wrote his own screenplay, and then came back to this, but then read Diablo Cody’s script “Juno” and decided he had to direct that. He was right to (do that) and he did a wonderful job. Right after “Juno” screened at the Toronto Film Festival, I turned back to him and said, “Okay, you’re ready to get going on ‘Up in the Air’.” And he said, “Yes, I really know what to do with it now.”

He started rewriting some of the work he had done initially five-odd years ago. He did not read anybody else’s drafts. He just basically took it and created this really fresh amazing piece of work. And really right from his first draft it was so startlingly good that everybody who read it said, “Oh, my God, we want to do this.” I remember, the mission draft was ready just as DreamWorks was leaving Paramount and, basically, (DreamWorks head) Stacey Snider, who had read the script and loved it, said, “You know, you’re going to have to just go through Paramount. We won’t be able to co-finance this movie with us and Montecito Pictures.”

It was clear that we were going to stay at Paramount because there was going to be more development opportunity for our company. We made something like five movies last year with them. So “Up In the Air” immediately got read by (Paramount vice chairman) Rob Moore and by (Paramount chairman & CEO) Brad Grey and Adam Goodman, who first started taking over the DreamWorks projects at Paramount and since then has become the head of production. And they loved it. There was never any problem getting (the picture made). This was actually the easiest green light I’ve had in years.
Father and son on set: Ivan Reitman (left) and Jason Reitman (right)

Father and son on set: Ivan Reitman (left) and Jason Reitman (right)

Q: When we look at the films you’ve directed and produced over the years, this one stands out as being different. It’s not your kind of material.
A: No, it’s not. It’s not a broad comedy. We got into it as the result of Jason’s intuition and really we’re flourishing with it because of Jason’s work. It’s wonderful for me as his Dad to see him do such great work.
Q: Will you look to do more serious films or, at least, films that are not broad comedies?
A: I think we’ve been evolving (that way). We did a movie called “Chloe” with Atom Egoyan (directing) that we sold to Sony this year. The movie really turned out pretty terrific. It’s going to open in this country and probably in Canada in March. I think it’s opening all over the world in the next couple of months. It’s a really good film and it’s very serious. It’s about adult sexual relationships in a marriage and what happens to sexuality in a long term marriage. It’s beautifully directed and cast (Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried).

We’re just trying to make good movies. We’re mostly making comedies. That’s just my love and it’s what I’ve made my own career and reputation on and I certainly am going to continue doing that. But as you get older you want to try different things. And certainly “Up In the Air” was just a very happy experience for all of us. And it looks like it’s even going to be a profitable experience for us both as producers and co-financiers.
Q: And it could bring you some good awards, as well.
A: Well, it’s being rewarded already by all kinds of organizations and, hopefully, we’ll get our share as these things go on. I really care about that mostly in terms of how it helps getting this movie out to as many people as possible. I think the issue with more adult sophisticated fare is that you really do need the support of the critical community. You need the support of awards organizations. I mean, certainly, all that really helps.
Q: You’ve been a Hollywood observer for a long time. How has the business changed over the years? Is it less fun today than it used to be? Is it harder to get films made now?
A: We (producers) all believe that it’s harder now. For one thing, the studios are making a lot less films. The studios have been set up in a much more corporate manner than I remember them in the ’80s. And there is more of a committee approach to what movies are being made and how movies are being made. Speaking as a person who really spent most of his life directing, I do believe there’s a very important role for producers in Hollywood. It’s a wonderful particularly Hollywood tradition of a producer being kind of an important counter-balance to good strong directors. It’s a kind of subtle creative conversation that comes with trust.

A lot of that kind of role has been usurped by studios who think that they are really the producers of the movies. They certainly finance them and they have an enormous amount to say. The unfortunate thing that happens is that the more of that sort of committee think that goes into the creation of films, the more they tend to get sort of averaged out. And in a strange way, they’re not cared for as well, either, financially. Even the kind of financial responsibilities that a good strong producer can exercise with an auteur director gets watered down when really the studio takes that ultimate control and there tends to be less fiscal responsibility as a result. So these are the kinds of things I think are evolving — plus when you see a movie can do $2 billion in the course of about five weeks it’s certainly the business everybody would like to be in and for a good reason.

I mean, it is a business. It’s hard for them to get their minds around a movie that costs $20 million or $25 million that they can make a lovely and modest return on. It’s really all about hitting the grand slam and that inevitably creates a sameness in the genres of movies that are made and in the specificity of the genres. And I don’t think that’s particularly good. Now saying all that, if you look at this year’s movies there’s quite a lovely range, actually more of a range than I’ve seen in a while. I think it’s reflected in the kind of boxoffice success that we had in 2009. These are the kind of issues that we all struggle with (as producers).

We at Montecito are just trying to find a way to beat the odds as well as we can and part of the way we can is that my partner Tom Pollock raised this co-financing when we could still raise it about three years ago. That has given us a modicum of independence. I won’t be as arrogant as saying that it has given us independence, but at least it has allowed us to speak at the table.
Q: So you have a voice in the destiny of what you’re doing?
A: Yes. Rather more of a voice certainly than a producer with no financing (would have). Because of our relationship with Paramount we have our own fund and we can buy things quickly and on our own. So that certainly helps in terms of the first part of it and then as partners with them in terms of movies that are going to be co-financed we’re certainly part of the conversation in a kind of primary way of casting, budgets, post-production, release schedule, marketing costs, those kinds of things.
Q: Finally, I’ve got to ask you about recent reports that you’re going to do “Ghostbusters 3”.
A: There’s been an enormous amount of chatter about it on the Internet. I think it’s because I was attending the National Board of Review (awards dinner where “Up In the Air” won best picture, actor/George Clooney, supporting actress/Anna Kendrick and adapted screenplay/Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) and one of the red carpet people asked me how it’s coming. I said the same thing I’ve been saying for a year, which is, “The screenplay is really coming along. I’m optimistic. It’s our hope to make this movie in the next year. We still have to get everybody to sign off, which we have not.” And they asked me if I would like to direct it and I said, “Certainly, if this thing is going forward I would like to direct it.” That somehow got presented all over the Internet as “We’re going. Everybody’s fucking on!” Basically, it’s in the same position it’s been for quite a long time except that the creative work is getting done and that’s good.
Q: And are you optimistic?
A: Yes, I am optimistic. We have a really good story and I think that’s what counts. For me, it was just not enough to do a third “Ghostbusters” merely because of the potential windfall aspects of it. It was really going to have to be terrific for us to bring in all the creative group that has been associated with the movie and my partners on this. I think this is a really good one.
Q: It’s been about 21 years since “Ghostbusters 2”. Do you think that makes any difference in terms of bringing “3” into the marketplace?
A: Normally, it could, but there seems to be an enormous amount of affection for the story and for the enterprise — for “Ghostbusters”. We saw it when Sony released this videogame last year, which was huge. It was either the top or second highest selling videogame of the year worldwide. There’s just an enormous amount of chatter about the movie and that makes me feel that certainly there’s interest in it. What we have to do is make sure that even the kind of people who are not particular fans will be knocked out by any movie we’re going to make and that’s our goal.
Q: Any thoughts about doing it in 3D?
A: I don’t want to talk too much about it because everything gets blown up too much. Certainly, I think for any large movie that has to be a part of a conversation these days because of the enormous success of the 3D movies that have come out. But, you know, you have to be careful about trends. Especially with the long lead time of movies, things that feel like they’re a trend today can sometimes feel like “Oh, my God, enough already” by the time you come out. You have to try to guess right.
Q: This, of course, would have you directing again, which you haven’t done since “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” in 2006. Are you happier directing than producing?
A: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s like the T-shirt says — “What I really want to do is direct.” I’ve gone on to produce and I’ve produced a lot of emerging filmmakers — first or second time filmmakers who have gone on to wonderful careers — and that’s been really fun. But I love the day to day action of being a director. I’m very creatively involved in the movies that I produce and sometimes it’s, frankly, easier to be the director if you’re going to be that involved. And I think I’m ready again.